Before my parents explained to me human reproduction, and way before I became a biologist, I used to think that babies came from the sea. Nature would just “make” them whenever it felt that it was ready to produce more humans. Couples who wanted to have a baby would go down to the beach together, hold hands, and they would adopt a rock — preferably one that was close to the water, right where the waves break. They would then sit patiently by the rock day and night, sometimes holding it in their arms, sometimes just watching over it as the sea waves and sun rays interacted with its surface, almost like they were nurturing it. After a few days, sometimes longer than a week, if they really loved each other and if they were in a lucky period when nature felt “generous”, the rock would wake up and slowly begin to transform into a human baby. Within just a few hours, body features would begin forming, almost like the baby was being sculpted out of the rock. Once it was fully formed, the rock would then begin to turn soft and become a human. They would then simply take the baby home with them, after thanking the sea. This was the day that would then become someone’s birthday.
There were no guarantees of course that this whole process would work, and in fact there were many failed attempts. Couples would return from the beach empty-handed and exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes they would go back to the same beach after many months or years, visiting the exact same rock in order to try all over again. It had to be the same rock according to tradition, otherwise it would never work. Beaches were sometimes full of these rocks, many of which had stayed forever “silent”, having failed to wake up even though couples had placed all of their hopes and dreams on them. Over time, and after the couples had lost every bit of hope, many of the rocks had been turned into shrines. Couples had grown to love them anyway, despite the fact that they never made it to the baby stage. They would visit them often and even arrange their holidays, gatherings and celebrations by the beach so that they can be close to them, almost as if they were part of the family. Miracles were not unusual, and rocks had been known on multiple occasions to “wake up” after several years of dormancy. This is why it was always so important to sleep close to the beach in case there was a birth, so that the parents-to-be can listen out carefully for any newborn cries amongst the waves. If they failed to appear within minutes to take care of the baby, it would simply turn back into a rock forever. This was nature’s way of balancing supply and demand.
The “rock story” was the most natural explanation for the “birds and the bees” that I could come up with at that age, given that the edge of the sea seemed to be the most abundant place, and where everything seemed to originate anyway. Having grown up on the beach, this was where my family would always have its most happy moments: carefree excursions, celebrations, picnics and other communal activities. It was also the place where one could find the most amazing and peculiar objects, just by walking along the edge of the water: sea shells, weathered and warped pieces of wood, dead sea-creatures, and sometimes on rare occasions bizarre-looking, unrecognizable objects that seemed to be “in-between” worlds: they were neither wood, stone, or sea-creature. They were something in-between, and a bit of everything. This was a definite clue to me that all living and non-living things were somehow connected. Rocks can turn into babies and the other way round. After all, they were all made out of similar molecules, more or less. They were made out of the same stuff all of us are made of.
But out of all the objects on the beach, the stones were the most fascinating. Each had their own shape, colour, and different types of minerals running through its body, appearing in streaks transversing their interior, sometimes resembling veins in a human body, other times lightning bolts cutting through a storm cloud. All the stones seemed to have their own history, given how different they looked from each other. We could tell that they had all come from completely different places, possibly even different planets. Yet somehow, they had all ended up here, on the same beach, waiting to be discovered so that they can become human.
So it was natural for me to assume that this was where babies were made. Although I loved my parents, I always felt that the reason they brought me to the beach was so that I can get to meet my real mother every once in a while. On our summer vacations in the north of Greece we always liked to go to many of the less popular beaches, some of which were exclusively made out of big, white marble stones and boulders that had been partially shaped by the waves. I used to look at them very carefully in order to see which ones most closely resembled babies in a fetal position. After a while, it was very easy to spot which ones seemed to be almost “ready” to become activated, and which ones seemed to be a long way from it. Perhaps they were destined to become not human but another animal, or even plant. Each stone had its own secret, its own destiny and reason to exist. It waited patiently, perhaps thousands of years, before someone would discover it, “love” it and activate it. Or, it would simply begin to weather into sand.
It turns out that all of this wasn’t very far off the truth actually. According to the prevailing scientific theory, life indeed most likely came out of a beach. Representing places where two of Earth’s biggest forces, land and water, get to meet and interact, beaches provide a unique set of conditions for complex molecules to evolve. Life apparently emerged not out of the rocks themselves, but out of a “soup” that had been brewing in a puddle on one of the rocks. This was much like an alphabet soup, only that instead of letters there were various simple molecules, just like building blocks at the beginning of a Lego game when you’ve just emptied the whole box on the floor. At this stage there were only a couple of different types of vowels and consonants in the alphabet to choose from. The soup was pretty bland and boring, but all this was about to change dramatically as more forces came to play on the beach. Our young planet and solar system were still going through puberty, and a chaotic one that is: between explosive volcanos, turbulent storms and acidic oceans, Earth was one angry, restless teenager desperate to find itself, ready to experiment and try anything at once. The little puddle on the rock became the melting pot of all the influences that this impressionable teenager accepted. Stardust fell into the puddle from the atmosphere, carried over from far away corners of the universe by comets and meteorites. It spiced up the soup with additional letters of the alphabet. Volcanos constantly kept the stove under the soup burning, while fierce waves and the occasional lightning provided the stirring action required. Before long, a thick soup developed as the lego pieces started clumping together at random, and the letters of the alphabet began to form words and sentences. Among the billions of combinations of the lego pieces, there was just one clump that was extraordinary: it could act as a stencil that could create other molecules, essentially replicating itself. It was like the alphabet soup could all of sudden read itself, then write itself. The first primitive DNA molecule was born, and the rest was history. All of that chaos, thunder and lightning, angry waves, angry volcanos, had been absorbed into the chemical bonds of a molecule too small to be seen by the naked eye, but determined to defy Earth’s aggressive elements: monocellular life was born, and it quickly took over the oceans before evolving into all other complex life we see today.
Humans are the biggest Lego construction out of all the species. One that can most easily crumble under its own weight at any point. The ancient chaotic forces that brought our various pieces together have been stored as chemical energy, holding our lego pieces together. But make no mistake, these forces are still there as strong as ever, balancing each other in a form of a stalemate. They are the same forces that can rip us apart, as the soup begins to stir again. The skies are becoming turbulent. The ocean is turning acid again. And we are all at risk of being turned back into rocks, sitting on a beach, shrines to a lost civilisation waiting patiently for millennia for the next puddle to form and “love” us back to life.
(From the book Photographic Heart)